- WSL / Brent Bielmann

The last time the women's Championship Tour included an event at Sunset Beach, it was 2010. Stephanie Gilmore was on her way to winning her fourth World Title, and a 16-year-old Australian received a wildcard to compete at Sunset. The wildcard was Tyler Wright. She won.

Now, with the women's rounds of the Hurley Pro Sunset Beach kicking off today, Wright is a two-time World Champion. But she has traveled a far more difficult road than her meteoric rise predicted. After illness sidelined her in 2018, Wright has returned to competition with a stronger sense of purpose.

It's one thing to be motivated by personal success. But it's even more powerful when an athlete finds something bigger than herself. And that's exactly what Wright has found in the years since she returned to surfing, and it's made her a more well-rounded competitor than ever before.

Tyler Wright The last time the women's Champoinship Tour was at Sunset Beach, Tyler Wright won as a 16-year-old Wildcard in 2010. - WSL

Wright was successful from an unusually early age. In 2008 she won the Beachley Classic as a 14 year old, the youngest surfer ever to win a CT event.

By 2011, Wright had made it onto the Championship Tour full time. Her powerful and precise surfing won her two events in 2013 finishing second in the world. A second runner-up finish in the World Title race came in 2014. From the outside everything seemed to be going perfectly.

But Wright was deeply unhappy. The dream of surfing on the World Tour didn't feel like her dream. "I was like, ‘Whose dream? I don't f-ing dream of this sh--. I want to read books. I want to go to school," she recalled in a 2021 interview with ESPN. At the time, she didn't know how to explain how conflicted she felt about her life in surfing.

TWEED HEADS SOUTH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 13: Tyler Wright, two-time World Surf League Champion, takes a knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter ahead of her heat today at the Tweed Coast Pro event on September 13, 2020 in Tweed Heads South, Australia, Tyler Wright has used her platform as one of the best surfers on the planet to champion important causes, which has given her a greater reason to win more Championship Tour events. - WSL / Matt Dunbar

When Wright looked around, she didn't see any role models. "I had no examples of women showing anger, but I was angry all the f-ing time," she said in that same 2021 interview.

She felt at odds with a culture that she felt alternately sexualized and demeaned women. She felt pressure to fit a narrow ideal of feminine beauty out of the water, while surfing fearlessly in the water. It felt like an impossible balance to hold for her, and Wright's rapid ascent stalled as her motivation faltered.

In 2015, when her older brother Owen suffered a life-threatening brain injury at Pipeline, it forced a reckoning for Wright. She channeled her emotions into her surfing, and the following year, Wright came storming out of the gates. She won five events and secured her first World Title. Rather than holding her back, her emotions seemed to propel her.

Watch Tyler Wright's 8.83 Backdoor Barrel At The 2022 Billabong Pro Pipeline
Tyler Wright was open about her fear of surfing Pipeline, but overcame this to secure one of the best Backdoor barrels of the first full-length female Championship Tour competition at Pipeline. See her Backdoor barrel at the three-minute mark on this condensed heat replay from the Semifinal.

The harder it gets, the better Wright surfs. That seemed to be the lesson of her first World Title campaign. The following year, Wright showed that same steely determination. She entered 2017 as the defending world champion, but a knee injury in Europe looked set to end her chances of a repeat title. Wright decided to push through it. With a torn MCL, Wright competed in the final three events in a knee brace. Her gritty, tough as nails performance won Wright a second World Title.

Still, it got more difficult. In 2018 Wright contracted influenza-A on safari in Africa ahead of the contest at J-Bay. Post-viral syndrome set in and Wright faced her biggest challenge yet. "My body aches, and my brain hurts - I'm really not much fun to be around," Wright wrote in an Instagram post at the time.

Her return to surfing started from nothing after she spent months in bed. At first, she fought for a normal life. Only much later did surfing seem possible to her.

PIPELINE, HI - DECEMBER 20: Two-time WSL Champion Tyler Wright of Australia is the winner of the Maui Pro presented by ROXY at Pipeline after taking victory in the final on December 20, 2020 in Oahu, Hawaii. (Photo by Tony Heff/World Surf League via Getty Images) Tyler Wright on her way to winning the 2021 Maui Pro presented by ROXY at Pipeline. - WSL / Tony Heff

As her recovery progressed, Wright revisited some of the conflicted emotions she felt during her early career. She read about athletes in other sports such as World Cup soccer player Megan Rapinoe and WNBA star Sue Bird. Where in the past she had looked in vain for role models, now she found them. She came out about her sexuality -- later wearing a Progress Pride flag on her competitor's jersey -- and embraced an identity that felt more authentic to her.

When Wright returned to surfing, she came to it with a renewed purpose. It was no longer only about her own success as an athlete. Instead, she viewed her career as a way to advocate for the beliefs she could now better articulate.

The results began to flow, too. In 2019 at her first contest back, Wright made the final at the lululemon Maui Pro.

Tyler Wright during the quarterfinals of the Maui Pro at Honolua Bay, Maui. Tyler Wright claimed back to back World Titles in 2016 and 2017. - WSL / Poullenot/Aquashot

In September 2020 at the Tweed Coast Pro, which she would go on to win, Wright spent the first eight minutes of her opening heat kneeling on the beach. On the bottom of her board, she wrote "Black Lives Matter." The following year, when the Maui Pro finished at Pipeline, Wright beat favorite Carissa Moore in the Final.

When the women's tour returned to Pipeline in 2022, Wright faced a new set of challenges. She had to paddle out at one of the world's most fearsome waves and learn to navigate a lineup that felt largely unknown to her. In the past, she might have tried to bottle up her emotions and ignore them.

But these days, Wright has learned to be more forthright about what she's feeling. She admitted openly to being afraid to surf Pipeline. "Look, honestly, I'm scared as …," she said after her Opening Round heat. "But I'm here for it." It takes strength to admit fear.

Maui, Success At A Young Age, & The Road To Recovery With Tyler Wright
In a revealing conversation from 2020, Tyler Wright relives her inspiring comeback at the 2019 Maui Pro and looks forward to the start of the new season.

Even with her limited experience at Pipeline, Wright had no illusions about the wave or its power. "You're going to get hit, so it's about how to take those impacts and bounce back as well." In her Round of 16 heat, she took a set straight on the head. "It was not the funnest time," she said, laughing.

Between the inevitable beatings, Wright says she learned more about the wave each heat she surfed it. In her semifinal against eventual winner Moana Jones Wong, Wright found a scorcher at Backdoor. She took off deep, stalled, and came out clean for a 8.83. It was among the highest wave scores of the event. Later in the heat, she went for a left with a long, swooping bottom turn, but chose to bail out.

In her post-heat interview, Wright emphasized the stakes at Pipe. "It's like, that's a broken body or a ten-point ride," she said of her attempt on the left. Wright had to dare, but she also needed to keep her perspective. No one wins a world title in a single wave; but she could certainly have lost it all right then and there. Wright left Pipeline tied for third in the world.

NEWCASTLE, AUS - APRIL 6: Two-time WSL Champion Tyler Wright of Australia surfing in Heat 4 of Round 3 of the Rip Curl Newcastle Cup presented by Corona on April 6, 2021 in Newcastle, Australia.(Photo by Cait Miers/World Surf League via Getty Images) With her surfing, there's a motivation that reaches beyond herself that propels Wright, and a new understanding of who she is that grounds her. - WSL / Cait Miers

Back in 2010 Wright met Stephanie Gilmore, Coco Ho, and Sally Fitzgibbons in the final heat at Sunset Beach. Gilmore was on her way to her fourth World Title. Wright scored a 17.24, the highest heat total of the event. Ho finished second, followed by Gilmore and Fitzgibbons.

Today, Wright returns to Sunset Beach. She's still one of the world's most talented surfers. But she's grown in new and unexpected ways.

With her surfing, there's a motivation that reaches beyond herself that propels Wright, and a new understanding of who she is that grounds her. She embraces her humanity - in all its complexity, frailty, and strength - rather than running from it. And while Wright may lose a in heat, she is never defeated.

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